Cover Story: Telematics Could Mean Smaller, Driverless Vehicles

Cover Story: Telematics Could Mean Smaller, Driverless Vehicles

Robo-automation may push agriculture toward fewer operators and more management from the home office.

What will the new age of smarter tractors bring to agriculture? There's a lot of speculation, but labor savings and greater efficiencies first come to mind. But it could also mean a completely different look to how vehicles interface with farmland.

"Telematics will mean driverless tractors, which should be a significant cost savings," says Waterloo, Iowa farmer Curtis Hollis, "because you won't have to have as much labor. You'll still need qualified people to go make adjustments and troubleshoot. But we eventually won't need a driver in every tractor."

ROBO CROP: Robo-automation may push agriculture toward fewer operators and more management from the home office.

In fact, 30 years from now Hollis envisions lower horsepower tractors and more of them on every farm. You might have three units pulling 8-row planters instead of one big one, he says. "If you don't have to put a driver in them, do you care what size the implement is? It might help soil compaction with lighter weight equipment."

Further, big machinery is expensive because it takes a lot of steel to span row widths of 60 to 90 feet.

"I'm sure we'll be sitting in our office, watching what's going on in our fields," he says. "That will be fairly soon. And that will mean more management. In the end, it has to be driven by lower costs."

Once you take the person off the tractor, the advantage of having bigger equipment almost disappears, adds Purdue Ag economist Jess Lowenberg-Deboer. "One way to reduce liability is to have a swarm of smaller equipment doing what you need to do," he says. "Maybe it would work better in smaller, contained spaces, such as an orchard, where the owner can put up a fence to reduce liability. Economics won't allow that for commodity crops."

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